Since June, two hikers have been confirmed killed, one is missing presumed dead, and one has been missing since November 23, in the area near Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker, both near Boulder, Colorado. If the missing hikers aren’t found alive, that makes four deaths in that one small stretch of the Rockies in the last six months. Aside from the geography, the one constant shared by each hiker: All four were alone when they set out on their hikes.
The most recent case, a 20-year-old Air Force cadet, left no notice of his plan when he started his hike. When he didn’t turn up back home, a search and rescue mission was organized. They found the missing hiker’s car parked at the Long’s Peak trailhead—Long’s Peak is a popular 14er in the Denver/Boulder area—but had little idea of where to look since he’d not told anyone of his plans. Severe winter weather has since gripped the area.
These four instances drive home the point that there is an inherent danger to venturing deep into the backcountry alone.
But solo hiking, especially on multi-day trips, is, or can be, incredibly fulfilling. Nothing develops confidence and skills in the backcountry nearly as quickly as figuring things out on your own. Navigating, route finding, decision making—all are lessons learned deeply and thoroughly when you can’t rely on somebody else to spot the trail, decide on a distance, or read a map. It’s empowering to overcome fears in the backcountry, and often when solo, especially in unfamiliar places, oh, there will be fears.
Though the fear is only one part of the experience. There’s a quietness, a relaxation, an uninterrupted connection with the wilderness that only solo hiking can bring. Without talking to anybody else, your senses just absorb sights, sounds, and smells. It’s also far, far more flexible than dealing with a group, or even duo excursions. Plus, you can move at your own pace, stop when you like, end a hike whenever you like. Taking on trails and backcountry trips on your own—at a level that doesn’t far outstrip your abilities—is a joy and a wonderful feeling.
Provided you go about it the right way, because there are far more dangers out there when you’re by yourself. Getting lost can happen even in groups, but if you’re injured, or otherwise incapacitated, being on your own can quickly become life-threatening. Satellite communicators can help with emergency SOS functions, but they’re no substitute for a companion who can go for help.
If you’re considering big-time solo hikes, and are new to the exercise, there are a few fundamentals to remember. First, tell people your plans—where you’re going and when you expect to return. Second, stay on your planned route. Off-trail hiking is awesome, but best done by people with advanced navigation skills. Third, know your limits and how comfortable you are pushing beyond them; being realistic can keep you from biting off a whole lot more than you can chew. Fourth, be at least a little aware of what negative things can happen, so if they do, say, if you do get lost, you’ll hopefully have already instituted a plan. Finally, strongly consider a messaging device, like the Garmin inReach.
Solo hiking is a truly magnificent and empowering experience. No reason it should be a life-threatening one.